June 14, 2012


A Gold Star for Zog. By Julia Donaldson. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

Into the Volcano. By Don Wood. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $12.99.

      A delightfully offbeat approach to traditional stories of fire-breathing dragons, princesses and brave knights, A Gold Star for Zog not only tells the tale from the dragon’s point of view (something that has been done before) – but also turns it into a story entirely different from the norm.  Zog, it seems, is a student at Madam Dragon’s school, where young dragons learn such important skills as flying,  breathing fire, roaring and – eventually – how to capture princesses.  But poor Zog keeps trying too hard, getting hoarse when he over-practices roaring, setting his own wing on fire, and generally falling short of earning the gold star he wants so much.  Luckily for him, each time he gets into trouble, a helpful girl stops by with a remedy, from a bandage to a peppermint lozenge.  And when it comes time to capture a princess, she reveals that she herself is one – Princess Pearl – and volunteers to go with Zog.  So Zog becomes the first young dragon in his class to catch a princess, gets his gold star after all, and the story ends…but no, it doesn’t.  What Julia Donaldson does here that is so clever is to graft a second story onto the first, as Pearl spends her time ministering to the young dragons’ injuries as they continue learning and making mistakes.  A year passes, and a knight shows up to rescue Pearl, and the knight and Zog are about to have a great battle, when Pearl steps in – and reveals that she does not want to see a fight and does not want to be a boring princess, but wants to go out into the world to help take care of people by becoming a doctor.  Soon a three-way agreement is reached – it turns out that Zog and the knight have some nontraditional career plans as well – and all does, in fact, end happily for everyone concerned (even the horse that the knight rode to the planned confrontation with the dragon).  Amusingly illustrated by Axel Scheffler, with clever touches throughout (one young dragon misunderstands about breathing fire and breathes snow instead), A Gold Star for Zog gets a gold star itself for nicely turning some very old legends and fairy tales into something new and different.

      What is different about Into the Volcano, originally published in 2008 and now available in paperback, is that this adventure really does take place inside an erupting volcano – not merely on a volcanic island or in a region where volcanic eruptions are frequent.  Intended for preteen and teenage readers, Don Wood’s handsomely rendered graphic novel is filled with B-movie elements: a not-very-attentive father who hands over his two boys to people who may be family members, crooks or kidnappers; danger; lots of drama; serious but non-fatal injuries; a hint of sex (but only a hint); strained humor; and, unfortunately, a creaky plot.  The boys, Duffy (the brave, athletic one) and Sumo (the scared one who turns heroic when heroism is most needed), get mixed up with some very unsavory-looking characters sporting such names as Come-and-Go and Mango Jo, and mystery follows mystery as the expedition on which the boys are made to go finds a way inside the volcano in search of – what?  Good question.  Another is why the boys’ father subjects them to all this.  A third is who the good guys really are – even at the end, when everything seems happy enough, it is not quite clear whether there were ever any bad guys and, if so, who they were.  The most interesting parts of this (+++) book are not the action sequences – although those have the most immediate appeal – but the discussions of how volcanoes function, what their eruptions mean, how new volcanic islands are formed, and so on.  The primary mystery turns out to revolve around a fictional material that supposedly has important scientific applications, such as making it possible to create “a room-temperature superconductor.”  The mixture of fact and fantasy is attractive here, the book is fast-paced, and the art is very well done, with a kind of noir cast to many scenes.  It is best, though, not to examine the plot or the characters’ motivations too closely – there are twists aplenty in Into the Volcano, but a lot of them are just the sorts of twists that readers of adventure books (and fans of B movies) are likely to expect.

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